To Tell the Truth, Take 2

There’s a lot of action going on in the Comments (see fine print at the end of each post) on To Tell the Truth. For one thing, you’ll find a choice little bibliography of books on writing. For another, DJE suggested a poem by Emily Dickinson so apt that I’m adding it right here:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind-

The truth must dazzle gradually — Emily Dickinson was under no illusions about human nature and frailties.

Now, you can stop reading right here, with those spare wonderful words ringing in your brain; or you can go on (and I hope you do) to hear  a serendipitous example of the saying, What I tell you two times is true. (Often quoted about the Talmud, where things of particular importance are repeated.)

I have to confess, I had never heard of this particular poem until DJE called it to my attention. But in the way these things happen, once I noticed it, then of course I immediately encountered it a second time, in a formidable book called Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf. It’s subtitled: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, so you have an idea.

Anyway, only a few dozen pages in, she challenges us to read a passage from Proust about a single day in his childhood, and after having done so, to examine how Proust’s words led you into your own thinking and personal insights. And then she writes:

“I cannot, of course, describes where your thoughts went, but I can describe mine. Because I had just visited an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Monet and impressionism, I found myself connecting how Proust wrote about a single day in his childhood with how Monet painted Impression: Sunrise. Both Proust and Monet used pieces of information to render a composite that made a more vivid impression than if they had created a perfect reproduction. In so doing, both artist and novelist are examples of Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic charge to ‘tell all the Truth, but tell it slant —-/Success in Circuit lies’.”

How neat is that?

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6 Responses to To Tell the Truth, Take 2

  1. DJE says:

    Hi Judith. “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Perhaps, we are bombarded all the time with much more information than we can assimilate, and only when our antennae are quivering do we receive the signals. What’s amazing is these connections. Studies have shown that we are connected to almost anyone on the planet by six degrees of separation — perhaps this is more than the number of connections to the Immortals (Dickinson, Proust, Shakespeare, Lady Murasaki). There’s this great treasure trove of knowledge that goes back to Homer and the author of Gilgamesh and stretches into the present. James Russell Lowell in his book on Keats spoke about “The Small Academy of the Immortals.” It’s important to spend time with some of them. To this end, Emily Dickinson again is a guide: “The Soul selects her own Society/Then shuts the Door/To her divine majority/Obtrude no more.” Literature, music, art, these connect us with those mutants who translate our world for us — the teachers in that small academe.

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  2. pauline says:

    Some time ago I wrote a blog piece about truth. I’ve copied some of it here. It’s a slippery slope we’re sliding down here.

    A truth is considered to be “universal” if it is true in all times and all places. Absolute truth does not apply to reality, existence, belief, or to human intelligence. The only universal propositions that must be true are those that exist a priori (before experience) for example: all dogs are mammals.

    Truth has various domains of application – mathematics is one. An example of a non-relative truth: the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second. But… light can be warped by certain conditions or appear to be extinguished in others.

    When discerning the truth, the complexity and implications of language combined with individual perception and judgment must be taken into account. Some people adhere to the concept of an absolute, all-encompassing morality. Is truth, then, a matter of faith? And, if it’s true that our bodies often belie our words (body language gives us away) then is the “truth” something we feel? And what makes us “feel” that way? Is it genetic? Conditioning? Education? Revelation? Blindly or willingly accepting the beliefs of others?

    Is there a real world that exists independently of our subjective perceptions, conceptions, or beliefs? Can we prove it? Does “telling the truth” apply to that world or does that capacity exist only in the subjective world?

    There are three main motivations for lying: punishment, protection, and self-promotion.

    Objective truth can rarely be established even when all people interpreting the events are determined to be as detached as possible, partly due to our penchant for telling a story. The power of myth is a well-studied phenomenon, and regular mythologizing seems to be an inherent human need consistently exhibited since prehistoric times.

    States Wikipedia: “Common dictionary definitions of truth mention some form of accord with fact or reality. There is, however, no single definition of truth about which scholars agree. Numerous theories of truth continue to be widely debated. Differing opinions exist on such questions as what constitutes truth, how to define and identify truth, what roles do revealed and acquired knowledge, and whether truth is subjective, relative, objective, or absolute.”

    I like to be exposed to what others are thinking (and putting into print) as though they’d found TRUTH. I like testing what I think to be true against what others have found, for when you get right down to it, we seem to be playing a huge game of Clue, with each of us contributing answers to the mighty questions of who, what, when, where, and why? There are times I wonder if there really are gods and goddesses and if so, what could they be thinking. There are others when I think Calvin and Hobbes have all the answers.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Wow, Pauline. An interesting read — and ideas to think about.
      One quick comment from me: You write, Is there a real world that exists independently of our subjective perceptions, conceptions, or beliefs? Can we prove it?
      This always makes me think of Bishop Berkeley (18th century Anglican cleric) who claimed there was NOT, and triggered this anecdote, told about Samuel Johnson (18th century polymath) by Boswell: After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
      Being a devout empiricist (albeit with a mystical bent), I love this story! And I thank you for your contribution to the discussion.
      (P.S. Pauline’s own blog, Writing down the Words, is listed on my blogroll on the home page.)

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  3. Mm says:

    Hi Judy –
    Read Pauline’s comment with interest, and in essence it comes from that other common observation – where you stand (on ideas) depends upon where you sit – your view is indeed limited to the lens you use, the angle, the zoom etc.; focus on one little pixel and it breaks up into a million different worlds of its own while you ignore the million other pixels – a million other worlds of other truths…

    I think it was the week before last that NYT ran a review of Proofiness to address just related issues in the numbers world – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/books/review/Strogatz-t.html?_r=1&ref=bookreviews – I’m sure you and your readers will like it.

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